The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter

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The allusions are complex, and deserve some careful consideration. On the one hand, Pandora and Eve are seen as female victims of a patriarchy that plays the part of an ‘omnipotent’ god, and brings punishment and scorn upon them (and, through them, upon all women, since they are both female prototypes) for being unable to restrain their natural human curiosity. There is, of course, nothing particularly female about curiosity, nor is it necessarily (or even usually) a bad thing: without her curiosity – and her disobedience of the patriarchy symbolised by her husband – the protagonist of ‘The Bloody Chamber’ would be far worse off than she is at the end of the story. It is vital that women do not trust the patriarchy as it presents itself, but approach the world with a questioning curiosity. Pandora’s curiosity as to what is in her box ends with the preservation of hope; Eve’s disobedience, too, benefits all of humanity in the end, since it leads to mankind’s salvation: it was, finally, in God’s dispensation a ‘happy fault’ (felix culpa) and Eve becomes the first female saint of the Church.

To fully understand the theme of women’s curiosity in the story, it is necessary to consider another element which Carter preserves from the original tale: the Marquis’s keys. These are so obviously phallic it seems almost redundant to point out the fact: when the narrator opens the Bloody Chamber she notes that the ‘key slid into the new lock as easily as a hot knife into butter.’ In giving her his keys, the Marquis is handing over to the protagonist his masculine power and authority – in its entirety. He makes it very clear that nothing is kept back. Although he forbids her the Bloody Chamber itself, he still gives her the power to enter it. Indeed he almost invites her to uncover things about him – to penetrate his mysteries, his secrets. This, however, is all a careful plot: at the moment of her triumph; when she feels she has discovered all there is to know of her husband, and has penetrated him completely, the trap is sprung, as the last thing she learns is that she is going to be murdered by him.
It is a brilliant reversal, and, from a feminist perspective, it underlines how the patriarchy operates: women are wooed with the illusion of power, however it still remains an inherently male attribute: the key that enters the lock will always be male and the lock which turns will always be female. Only be subverting the power dynamic itself can patriarchy be undermined.

A New Hope?

Hope is still left in Pandora’s box, and ‘The Bloody Chamber’ ends with a new household established containing Jean-Yves, the protagonist and her mother, the piano-tuner’s keys being a matter of bringing harmony rather than discord; the Marquis’s money (and therefore his power) given away to ‘various charities’.

As in ‘Bluebeard’, the female protagonist is saved by her family, but in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ it is her mother rather than her brothers who end the Bluebeard-figure’s life. The change necessitates the introduction of a stock ‘strong female character’ and Carter has some fun with the absurdity of the figure the mother cuts as she enters the castle:

her hat seized by the winds, […] her black lisle legs exposed to the thigh, her skirts tucked round her waist, one hand on the reins of the rearing horse while the other clasped my father's service revolver

‘maternal telepathy’, of determination, and above all of curiosity that pays no heed to propriety and patriarchal rules (represented in the story by the protagonist’s old nurse) that leads to the mother’s heroic intervention. This ‘eagle-featured, indomitable’ woman was left with a puzzle – Why is my child crying over gold-plated taps? – and solves it with an eccentric rescue mission.

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